Whole Foods Takes a Stand

On Earth Day next week, the natural and organic foods supermarket Whole Foods will stop offering plastic bags to its customers. So how are you expected to carry home your granola, fruit juice, soymilk and edamame? It's down to paper or reusable canvas bags.

In response to these laudable efforts, Jeff Stier the associate director of the American Council on Science and Health wrote a scathing article in the New York Post entitled 'Paper Bags: Roach City.' According to Stier, "like other Earth Day initiatives, this move by Whole Foods reeks of a phenomenon known as 'greenwashing.'"

Stier spends his entire piece loftily writing about how cockroaches prefer to nest in paper rather than plastic, conjuring up shudder-inducing images in his readers (the subject line in the email that I got from a coworker about his article reads "this is disgusting"), and insisting that Whole Foods should be allowing its consumers the choice of using plastic bags.

If anyone can be cajoled into taking Stier's dramatic account seriously, we face a dire future: the nation will soon be over run by cockroaches, dog poo will line our once pristine streets, and unlined trash cans will be splattered with the remnants of leftover food.

There's no denying that being green is a fad – and one that's smoking hot right now. It's cool to care and companies that don't may act like they do in order to preempt an onslaught of bad PR. In this case though, Whole Foods' move is far from greenwashing.

Plastic is just bad. Whole Foods has done a good thing. Yes we all reuse plastic bags, but equally, we all throw them away too after using them just once – something we wouldn't do if the bags weren’t such an easy commodity to come by. There are tens of thousands of other stores out there still dispensing these bags and the move is integral to Whole Foods' image as a natural foods chain. Just like it's integral to Fast Company's image to work in a green building. Cutting down on plastic –and this does not imply eliminating it completely right away – will not affect our lives negatively in the least.

In his defense, Stier does make several good points – that people are too eager to jump on the green bandwagon without thoroughly examining the cause they're rooting for, that many corporations that claim to be environmentally friendly are in fact more concerned with their image than with the cause itself, and that roaches are indeed more attracted to paper than plastic. But his points fall far short of adding up to make a case against Whole Foods' endeavor.

At a recent PSFK panel, designer Jeff Staple, who has worked on sustainable initiatives for Nike, made a compelling point about the need to encourage big firms to engage in sustainable practices. He underscores the importance of encouraging big corporations that are trying to go green and issues a caveat about the dangers of labeling their sustainable initiatives nothing more than self-indulgent publicity stunts. His co-panelist Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger, sums it up best: "If you can turn a big ship just a little bit, it’s amazing what the ripple effect can be."

An incisive Fast Company article this month explains the often-unexploited power of getting inertia on your side, a theory that could easily be extended to apply to the plastic-paper issue. Authors Chip and Dan Heath explain the power of the default option – when consumers have to request a change in an option, more likely than not they will be too lazy to do so.

The trick is to structure the default option to suit your cause. Using this principle, stores across the nation could cut down on the consumption of plastic without the inconvenience of complete eradication (at least until a solution to dog poo collection, cockroaches and extra trash liners has been created) by giving consumers a paper bag by default and then, if they ask for a plastic bag instead, charging them five cents for it. Some stores have already adopted policies like this, and if the inertia theory proves right, more consumers will accept the paper bags rather than deal with the hassle of scrounging around for the extra five cents.

In the meantime however, organic and natural foods stores like Whole Foods, and other retailers that have embraced the ideals of adopting environmentally friendly practices are right in eradicating the plastic bag option altogether. It's high time one of the larger ships took a stand.

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  • Edward King

    I just moved to the US from the UK and every time I go into a shop here they have a strange habit of using two bags instead of one. I find this all the more peculiar as most people in London have to walk several blocks back to their homes where as people in the US tend to jump straight into their cars. If two bags were really required to prevent bags tearing open surely this would be more important for people who have to walk longer distances? As I don't have a car I have to walk several blocks in the US to get to my local Whole Foods and I can assure other readers that if you ask for a single bag (paper or plastic) it will not tear open on your way home! Whole Foods could do more for the environment if they gave up this ridiculous custom as they would save 50% of their bags overnight.